The Crucifixion of Pat Tillman
As the family stands nobly in its grief, two lines of Sun Devil cheerleaders, midriffs bare, gyrate their bodies no more than 10 yards in front of them. It is another line of scrimmage, as unfathomable grief confronts a carefree chorus line. It also feels, even if this was not the intent of the Arizona State officials who dedicated this honor to their fallen alumnus, as if the Tillman family is being used.
Exploitation is a central theme in "The Tillman Story," which glosses over the life and death of the NFL player-turned-U.S. Army Ranger, while focusing on his bereaved family's battle for the truth. Military tributes, be it at the memorial in his hometown of San Jose or the Silver Star awarded posthumously, are wreathed in conspicuous lies. Gridiron tributes, from the NFL playing a video on a stadium jumbo-tron in which Tillman, an intensely private individual, discusses patriotism to the unveiling of a statue that bears a Nike swoosh, seem the product of marketing teams who do not understand the first thing about the character of the man to whom those encomiums are being paid.
"Everyone grabbed at Pat's death," says Tillman's youngest brother, Richard (middle brother Kevin, who served with Pat, declined to appear in the film). "They just chose the wrong family to do it in front of."
And yet, while "The Tillman Story" confronts tragedy and provokes rage, this documentary directed by Amir Bar-Lev ("My Kid Could Paint That") also introduces us to more heroes than five summers' worth of blockbusters. There is the titular character, of course, who forsook a plush life in the NFL to enlist in the U.S. Army in the wake of 9/11. There's his mother, Dannie, who for 2 1/2 years pored through more than 3,000 pages of investigative documents, much of the information redacted, in an insatiable quest for the facts.
If Pat Tillman's final years, from the Arizona Cardinals to Iraq and ultimately Afghanistan, were an odyssey, Dannie Tillman's hunt for the truth was no less of one. In one of the film's lighter moments, Tillman explains to an interviewer why his mother is his hero. "She finished last in the San Francisco Marathon," he says.
Last, yes, but she finished.
There's Bryan O'Neal, the Ranger who was nearest to Tillman at the moment of his death. A nerdy-looking sort, who in a "Lord of the Flies" scenario would be one of the first marked for exclusion, O'Neal displays more honor and courage than any high-ranking official we encounter. There's Stan Goff, the retired special-ops guy who, despite having two sons in the military, pledges his assistance to the Tillmans in helping them decipher the military jargon and b.s. in those redacted documents.
Russell Baer, another former Ranger who refused to sell the lie that the military peddled, also acquits himself well. And then there's Marie Tillman, Pat's widow, who in her lowest moment of grief, all by herself, stands up to a trio of military emissaries who attempted to bully her into giving her husband a 21-gun salute sendoff at Arlington National Cemetery ... an idea he had expressly forbidden to them.
At times, Bar-Lev's documentary, which currently has only been released in Los Angeles and New York City, is redolent of other films. There's a little bit of "Into the Wild" (not coincidentally, author Jon Krakauer profiled both Chris McCandless and Tillman in separate books) in Tillman's lifelong and globe-trotting quest for self-discovery. There's parts of "Grizzly Man," in which an American sacrifices socialization for something in which he believes, only to be killed by the very creatures he considered his brethren (there, I believe, the comparisons between Pat Tillman and Timothy Treadwell should end).
And there's more than a passing resemblance to "A Few Good Men" -- a fratricide, a cover-up and a climactic courtroom scene in Washington, D.C. In fact, there is a moment in which you wish that either Dannie Tillman or Patrick's father, an attorney, could hijack the hearings and cross-examine the military brass themselves. After all, as the chairman of the committee, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California), told Dannie, "Nobody knows this (information) more than you."
"The Tillman Story" is the summer's, if not the year's, best film. It is a conspiracy thriller. A war drama. A murder mystery. A character study. A morality tale. And although its titular character appears onscreen for no more than five minutes, if that, he comes across as a messianic figure for modern times: a man of unimpeachable character and integrity who is not above liberally dropping F-bombs or downing a cheap domestic beer.
These scenes in which Tillman, who wore the numbers 42 at Arizona State and 40 for the Arizona Cardinals (his death occurred on 04/22/2004), appears are less character-defining than character-illuminating. There is Pat, just a high school senior, receiving an award and being prodded by a local TV sports guy to "just this once, take some glory for yourself." Tillman, at least fifteen years the man's junior, simply stares him down until the newsman awkwardly relents.
In another, Tillman the Arizona Cardinal is asked why fans should believe that the franchise, which had yet to earn a playoff berth since relocating to Arizona in 1988, would be any better this year. "They shouldn't," Tillman says without hesitation. "Until we start winning some games, I'd stay away, too."
That season, with Tillman starting at safety, the Cards won their first playoff game in more than 50 years.
The irony of "The Tillman Story" is two-fold. First, that its protagonist sacrificed those most treasured secular values -- fame and riches -- in order to serve a country whose government ultimately betrayed him. That more Americans can identify Snooki than they can Tillman is a crying (and that's not the adjective I'd like to use) shame.
Second, that the military in which Tillman served helps to preserve the freedoms of this land. Imagine "The Tillman Story," which prosecutes and nearly outright convicts those in the highest levels of government of committing fraud in covering up the truth behind Tillman's death, being made and released without fear of reprisal in the Middle East. Or China. It would never happen.
The tragedy of "The Tillman Story?" That once again, in a decade in which the term "too big to fail" has been introduced, truth and fairness take a backseat to those in power protecting what's theirs. It is noted, for instance, that during the hearing with the top-ranking military officials, chief among them former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the phrase "I don't remember" was used 82 times. Such amnesia begs credulity, especially when you consider that Rumsfeld penned a hand-written note to Tillman upon the occasion of his enlistment.
As Baer, the fellow Ranger, says, "Nobody wrote to congratulate me when I signed up for the Army."
Things don't always happen for a reason. Life isn't fair. And a cynic is just an idealist who's seen too much. Pat Tillman would scoff at any messianic comparison, but if you believe someone else died for your sins, then maybe Pat Tillman died so that you, if the opportunity ever avails itself, will choose truth over self-preservation.
Then again, maybe I'm just exploiting Tillman's death to float my own agenda. The best tribute to Pat Tillman, then? See this film.